This is part of a homily delivered at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio at Evensong on Wednesday, December 1st 2010. The service commemorated both St Andrew (30th November) and World AIDS Day (1st December). The second part will follow tomorrow. The readings for St Andrew’s feast day are Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Romans 10:8b-18; Matthew 4:18-22.
The word is very near to you. I have a book by that title at home, by Martin Smith. It’s about praying with the Bible, letting the Scriptures inhabit your soul and heart and mind and lead your imagination to God.
The word is very near to you.
When Moses said this to his people, he spoke of the commandments which God had given to them. He spoke of the promises and responsibilities which God had given to them. He was speaking of God’s covenant with the people of the Exodus, a covenant to be their God, to be with them through disobedience and exile and restoration and salvation. The word of God was the word that God gave, as in “I give you my word.” God is never far from God’s people. God reaches into their hearts and minds, God places God’s name on their lips, and turns their imagination toward the source of all being and living.
The word is very near to you.
For Paul, the word of God is the word of the gospel, the newly heard good news of God’s covenant with all of God’s people. It is a word which can be heard throughout the nations, a word which excludes no one and which applies to everyone. No one needs to go up into heaven to find this word, Paul tells his audience, because Christ has come down from heaven and lived among us – the word, indeed, is very near – and has been raised from the dead by God’s gracious action. Jesus is Lord, and we know by this that God has begun the promised restoration of God’s people to life and light. We are saved.
The word which Andrew heard, according to Matthew’s gospel, was “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And the word which Andrew spoke was, “Yes.” He didn’t ask, as I might have been inclined to, “What are you talking about? Who are you anyway?” No, Andrew recognized the word that had come near to him as the Incarnate Word of God, and he answered affirmatively and enthusiastically.
In John’s gospel, the story of Andrew’s call is told a little differently. He is still one of two men who hear Jesus come near to them, but it is he who then runs to tells his brother, Simon, “We have found the Messiah!” Without hesitation, Andrew not only hears but begins to spread the word, the good news of God’s gracious action in the world through Christ Jesus. Later in John’s gospel, some Greeks approach Philip and ask to see Jesus, and Philip goes to consult Andrew, and Andrew says, “Yes!” and goes to Jesus on behalf of the men. Once again, he has no hesitation spreading the gospel to all and sundry; like Paul, he makes no distinction between Jew and Greek; he knows that Jesus has come to all of creation. And when the crowd was hungry, and a small boy offered the meager supply of food that he had to share among the people, it was Andrew who said, “Yes, of course you can help,” and brought that little one to Jesus, full of faith and in trembling hope that between them the multitude could be fed.
The word was very near to Andrew, and his ministry was to bring the word to anyone he encountered, and to bring anyone he encountered into the presence of the Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ, whether they be a brother or a stranger, a Jew or a Greek, a scholar or a small child.
Thinking about St Andrew this week, it was the story of his encounter with the small child that kept tripping up my imagination.
If I use the techniques set out by Martin Smith in his book, The Word is Very Near to You, I will imagine myself into the scene, onto that hillside in ancient Palestine, overlooking the town of Tiberias. I hitchhiked there once – that’s a whole other story – but it means that I have an image in my head of the lake there, of the rise of ground where the crowd might have gathered to sit and hear Jesus. I imagine the swell of people; the growing restlessness and unease as they begin to realize the dilemma of the lateness of the hour and the lack of any food and the hunger of their children and their neighbors. The people closest to Jesus are beginning to discuss the situation in hushed tones; we are not far from them, so we overhear snatches of their conversation. Philip, one of the disciples, is becoming worried and argumentative.
Suddenly, I am aware that my youngest son has stood up and is carrying our own family’s barely sufficient supply of food toward the group of disciples. I stand up to call him back: Impetuous child, he is liable to get a scolding from this stranger whose clothes he is tugging on and anyway, if he gives them all of our food, what will we eat? I am increasingly anxious, and wondering how to stop him without making a scene. But the man, Andrew, turns gently to my son, and seeing him, squats down.
“What have we here?” he asks with a smile. “I want to help,” I hear my son say, with all the innocence of youth. “I don’t have a lot, but do you think it will help?” I groan inwardly. Five loaves and two fish, and people spread out along the hillside as far as I can see. But Andrew takes my son by the shoulder. “Yes,” he says, “I think that the master can use this. Let’s go and talk to him.”
And they disappear together into that tight knot of people, and the arguing voices hush, and I hear a laugh, not of disparagement but of joy, of love, of gratitude, and a moment later my youngest son comes running back to us and yells, “Sit down! Jesus says we’re going to have a picnic!” And my little boy’s face is shining.
How apt, then, that the people of St Andrew’s, Elyria, will spend this evening serving a community meal to those who hunger for what they have to share.